The story of "Seabiscuit" is legendary. A small, undersized horse with knobby knees, a
large appetite and foul disposition is disowned and abandoned only to find itself in
the hands of three discouraged men in search of a new way of life - a disheartened owner,
a frontierless cowboy, and a troubled jockey - all of whom put their heart and soul into
making Seabiscuit a champion race horse and the underdog favorite of a generation.
Directed by Gary Ross, also known for the 1998 comedy "Pleasantville," and based on
the best selling book by Laura Hillenbrand, "Seabiscuit" is exhilarating, sentimental,
and uplifting." It's a Cinderella story for all ages.
In the early 1900's, the sky was the limit as Americans in rapid numbers sought after
the great American dream. Among them was a young pioneer by the name of Charles Howard,
an entrepreneur who began his own bicycle shop in San Francisco only to wind up innovating
his way into automobiles. A great salesman, Howard grew his business into the largest
Buick dealership in the west. It made him rich and famous, yet also made him humble.
On one fateful day, the cars that gave him success took away the most important thing
money could not buy - his family. In a tragic accident, Howard lost his son and after
a long struggle to cope with the loss, his marriage dissolved as well. In deep despair
and disarray, Howard ventured south of the border to escape his troubles.
It was in Mexico, which did not have laws against gambling, drinking, bull fighting, and horse
racing, where Howard regrouped. He found a new love in the form of Marcela Zabala and
gradually became a horse enthusiast. Once exclaiming, "the day of the horse is past,"
Charles changed his tune. He wed Marcela shortly after and the two eagerly sought to
purchase a horse of their own. In the process, Charles hired an old and outmoded cowboy
named Tom Smith as his horse trainer. And just like Charles took a chance on Tom, Tom
took a chance on Seabiscuit. For it was Tom who spied the rugged and difficult bay horse
with an uncanny spirit and it was Tom who spied the equally rugged and difficult jockey
named Red Pollard, an ex-boxer blind in one eye.
"The horse is too small, the jockey too big, the trainer too old, and I'm too
dumb to know the difference!" It was only a matter of time before the small
horse won its first race, broke track records, and became a legend in its time.
Under the tutelage and care of Tom Smith and the savvy fighting spirit of jockey
Red Pollard, Seabiscuit's improbable rise captured the hearts and minds of a
society looking for hope in a time when hope had all but vanished. Despite
numerous career-threatening setbacks, Seabiscuit continued to beat the odds, going
on to challenge the resident Triple Crown winner, War Admiral, and eventually
securing a place in horseracing history.
"Seabiscuit" is more than your 'little horse that could' kind of story. It's about three
men at the end of their ropes who find salvation in a tiny horse with a big heart.
Ironically, Charles Howard once said "I wouldn't pay five dollars for the best horse in
America." But following the death of his son and the dissolution of his marriage, he had
a change of heart. He becomes fond of that which he sought to make obsolete and he finds
solace in horses and caring for those who cared for them. Among those he cared for were
Tom Smith and Red Pollard, two men also in dire straits. Tom realizes he's at the end of
his rope, his quiet frontier all closed up with barbed wire and cluttered with train
tracks. He's become a relic in a future looking society. Then there's Red Pollard, an
Irish immigrant's son, an intellectually gifted child whose family loses nearly
everything during the depression. Abandoned at a young age and forced to race horses
and box in savage like fights for survival, Pollard has lots of spirit but very little
hope of escaping his past. All three find each other. All three find hope in the horse
just as the horse finds hope in them.
"Seabiscuit" is a quiet film, oftentimes silent for moments on end, in reflection of both
tragedy and triumph. Subtle performances by Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, and Chris Cooper
are dead on, particularly Bridges and Cooper who seem to get better and better with every
film. And you don't need a lot of dialogue with these guys because when they speak, you
feel compelled to listen. William H. Macy provides comic relief in the form of Tick Tock
McGlaughlin, a radio announcer with a knack for special effects - bells and whistles, a
gong, clackety shoes, and a female assistant to boot. Macy was a great choice for the
added role as was champion jockey Gary Stevens in the role of George Woolf. Stevens' Woolf
is not what you'd expect from a competitor - he's sensible, kind hearted, and caring. As
the longtime friend of Red Pollard, Stevens' charm and support make Woolf a terrific
supporting character and the fact that he actually is a jockey lends additional
authenticity to the film.
Full of heart pounding energy, hoof-thumping action, the races were high
octane and nail biting even though in most instances, you knew the outcome.
I simply loved them and wanted more. With cameras that seemed to be right
in the middle jockeying for position, Hall of Famer Chris McCarron choreographed
the sequences with amazing detail, giving the audience a new perspective,
(almost a NASCAR feel) of what it would be like to be a jockey. Note: McCarron
also cameos as Charley Kurtsinger, the jockey of War Admiral.
But despite great acting, a great story, and terrific action, something seemed
amiss. The film had a tendency to unfold like a Biography on A&E or PBS. I
know it was intended by Ross to do so, but intertwining historical facts related
or unrelated to the overall story (narrated by David McCullough) created a
distraction and a bit of a yawn. The land of opportunity, the Great Depression,
and FDR's New Deal are all integral pieces of American history 101. These
items should have hit the cutting room floor to focus more on the horse and
the legend, build better relationships between characters, and develop a love
for the Biscuit that connected with audiences. Instead, the film teeters
in the documentary elements, prolongs the introduction of the main character
until 50 minutes in, and fails to win our hearts at the finish line the way
other underdog sports films such as "Hoosiers" and "Rudy" did, films that
remain focused on their subject matter and leave audiences on an emotional high.
In the end, there are no afterthoughts, no additional details as to what
became of Howard, Smith, and Pollard. There is no indication as to whether
Seabiscuit was able to retire to the pasture and bask in all his glory. It's
a bit of a letdown, although a great way to lead an audience to the book for
more. But perhaps the biggest disappointment of all is that, like Rodney
Dangerfield, Seabiscuit gets no respect. In history books there is little
mention of him or his relation (grandson) to Man o' War, the stellar chestnut
thoroughbred who came before him. In addition, you probably won't even find
him mentioned in the same breath as other horse racing greats like Secretariat or
Citation, horses that defined the words Triple Crown. Alas. Such is the life
of an underdog, the life of a Cinderella horse, the life of a real American